When Stephen McKinley Henderson speaks, it is wise to listen.
Henderson teaches acting and stagecraft at the University at Buffalo’s Department of Theater and Dance, is a Tony award-nominated Broadway actor – and recently has made his way to Hollywood, currently seen in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” as the 16th president’s valet. Back in brighter times for the late and lamented Studio Arena Theatre, the soft-spoken and savvy Henderson was a brilliant interpreter of plays by Athol Fugard and August Wilson. Proudly, Western New York considers him one of its own.
Henderson read, not long ago, a short, quirky play, “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” one of a trio of acclaimed works by the Cleveland-born Rajiv Joseph (the others are “Animals Out of Paper” and Pulitzer Prize finalist “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”). “Gruesome …,” thought Henderson, would be perfect for two of his former students, Taylor Doherty and Kathleen Golde, and their fledgling but burgeoning acting troupe, Buffalo Laboratory Theatre.
So it has come to pass. BLT has taken the recommendation and received a bonus: Henderson agreed to direct and after a few starts and stops, the play has opened for a short run at the sleek Swan Auditorium on the Hilbert College campus in Hamburg.
“Gruesome …” has been called “odd and irresistible” and “a blood-splattered twig of a play” by critics, and it is indeed those things. It is also incomplete, I think, leaving onlookers and listeners wanting and wondering. But it is good. Very good.
In a rapid series of vignettes, the story introduces and follows Doherty’s Doug and Golde’s Kayleen over 30 years, through meetings – first, at age 8 in the school nurse’s office, then over time, in a series of emergency rooms, clinics and institutions – to a final, I’ve-had-it confrontation that doesn’t augur well for the two friends and almost lovers.
It’s quickly apparent that Doug and Kayleen have problems. He’s careless and reckless, with the poorest of judgment, a daredevil, foolishly so: a leap off the school roof on his bike, terrible experiences with fireworks, lightning and climbing telephone poles. Cuts, bruises, the loss of an eye. She suffers from stomachaches, depression and is a self-cutter, this last habit the concern of some mental health professionals. Doug loves Kayleen. She doesn’t reciprocate … or isn’t sure. They’re both emotional wrecks, needy, and while they search for each other, there are absences, years sometimes. Then, together again, recriminations: “Yeah? Well, where were you?” They’re a mess.
Doug has these external, attention-getting hurts that he thinks will match Kayleen’s internal anguish. No deep metaphors here, just a sad story of two likable, often lovable people adrift in worlds they can’t handle.
They often ask each other, “Does it hurt?” Gradually, we learn that it’s not the bumps and bruises. It’s life. “Yes,” they both say.
Director Henderson puts Doherty and Golde through an extraordinary 70-minute, no-frills, tell-the-tale regimen. They age, change clothes and appearance – sometimes they regress and fill in some details – they spar, confide, make a point, rescind.
There are numerical, huge toy blocks that depict a timeline. The actors move those, make some room to soothe or attack, all of this on the stage at The Swan, in-the-round, feet from the audience.
It’s an intimate setting, perfect, as Henderson predicted it would be, for the burgeoning BLT and its superb, believable cast of two.
“Gruesome Playground Injuries”
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Presented by Buffalo Laboratory Theatre in the William Swan Auditorium, Hilbert College, 5200 South Park Ave., Hamburg. Through Feb. 9. Call 202-9033 or visit www.buffalolabtheatre.org. Tickets are $15 to $20.